Cyclone Amphan was one of the worst storms to hit the West Bengal Coastline in decades. Both, West Bengal which saw over 70 deaths, and Bangladesh have been ravaged by the storm. All of us had probably come across pictures and videos of the havoc the cyclone has caused in the cities and urban areas on social media or news reports, but very little is reported on the devastation Amphan left behind in Sundarbans.
The Sundarbans has always been Bengal’s first line of defence in the event of any cyclone hitting its coastline. This has caused the people of the region to be the most affected and at the mercy of the nature. Days after Amphan ravaged the entire state, the lives in Sundarbans have gone into a state of shock. Overnight thousands of people have been left homeless and without a livelihood. Power systems dislocated and mobile networks blacked out have rendered these people helpless. Yet, these are not even close to the long term problem that will continue to exist.
Winds blowing at speeds of 150kmph battered the coastal region of South Bengal at the time of landfall, wrecking the entire ecosystem. It was feared that the direction of the wind has caused more harm than the heavy wind itself.
South to north winds generally trigger a surge and movement of water from the sea to land. While cyclones like Alia in 2009, and Bulbul in November 2019, have caused a lot of damage in the region, due to the north to south direction of the wind, the inundation of water into landmass was little. Amphan, on the other hand, was a larger wind system which slightly changed the direction of the wind, causing it to blow from south-southwest to the north northeast. This slight change in direction was all it took to cause havoc, according to many researchers.
A bulk of embankments in the Sundarbans were also damaged which aggravated the ingress of seawater into the land. With such infrastructure heavily breached, it affected the livelihoods of many in the area, most of them who work in the primary sector.
The saline water in farmland not only destroyed the lush green paddy, which was the only source of income for many for the coming months, but also poisoned the soil, and it is believed that it will take many showers of monsoon rain before the soil is again cultivable. Saltwater has also mixed with freshwater bodies of the area which has left people without water that is suitable for irrigation. In these areas of freshwater, fishery was a source of income for many, but the saline water has killed thousands of fishes, which now float lifelessly in these still lakes.
The battle against saline water in the past has proved to be a herculean task. In 2009, after Cyclone Alia, forest officials spent a long time pumping out the water from the farmland.
Even resident farmers living in the area recognise the problem. They have grown accustomed to rebuilding houses, but saline water is a slow poison for their lands as some farmers claim that the farmland took 3 years to recover after Alia.
The people of Sundarbans are struggling to find even the basic necessities. Water is scarce, as saline water has also poisoned other water sources rendering them useless. As the high-speed winds destroyed the roofs of many houses in the area, water flooded into the house, destroying the little food grains and water people had. Hungry and homeless, the people in Sundarbans continue trying to survive the super cyclone, even today.
While livelihood and homes have been lost, observers feel that the ecologically-fragile region will see an emigration surge in the time to come. Most working in the primary sector have lost their source of income to the storm and migration to the city is the only hope.
When paddy fields were flooded with saline water during Alia in 2009, thousands of youth and male members of the families were forced out of the region in order to find better opportunities. The rising sea-level in the delta which is much higher than the global average has also contributed to the migration. About 40 lakh people of the Sundarbans have migrated to areas in North 24 Parganas, and South 24 Parganas of West Bengal in recent times.
Amphan has destroyed whatever was rebuilt after cyclone Alia struck, so experts and NGOs predict another wave of mass migration towards the cities. This is a huge problem, especially when the world is fighting a pandemic. It is also difficult for many migrant workers who are on their way back, coming home to another crisis.
The world largest Mangrove forest time and again in history has protected the area. Acting like a shield, the mangrove ecosystem is quite resilient against momentary disturbances. The forest serves both direct and indirect measures to moderate the effects of strong winds and powerful storm surges. Directly, the mangrove provides additional drag during a storm surge, and thick canopy reduces the speed of the winds. Indirectly, the roots aid sedimentation and counteract erosional forces increasing the coastline which becomes a buffer for cyclones.
This protective work of the mangrove ecosystem has largely been overlooked. The forests have faced deforestation and overexploitation by human activities. Climate change which has caused the sea level to rise has also played a huge detrimental role. The rise sea level in the delta is higher than the global average at 3cms per year, and in the last 20 years, the Sundarbans has faced the highest rate of sea encroachment in the world.
The ignorance towards its reconstruction means that the forest’s protective mechanism has deteriorated over the years, along with its ability to sustain life, which include some of India’s most endangered species like the Royal Bengal Tiger, the Gangetic Dolphins, and Olive Ridley Turtles.
The fate of the wild animals in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan also remains uncertain. Authorities say they probably have been affected the most.
Since the government imposed a countrywide lockdown, on March 25th, no motorboats have been allowed to maintain the forest tranquility. The Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) explained that it was done so that the wildlife would get a congenial breeding ground.
Although vulnerable people were removed before the cyclone hit, from the coastal and forest area, there is very little information about how the wildlife has been affected.
The forest department, before the cyclone made landfall, formed rapid response teams and set up two control rooms. The DFO explained that this will allow the forest department to track any movement of tigers from the core reserve area to contagious villages.
Cyclones are a common occurrence in the area, and thus it becomes a necessity for the rebuilding of the mangrove ecosystem, so in the future cyclones of such measure don't cause similar or more devastating effects.
Relief work has already started with the Chief Minister of Bengal announcing a Rs 1000 crore fund for the rehabilitation and restoration of the area. However, in the long run, the development of the region should be attuned to ensure the protection of the mangrove ecosystem. Moreover, proactive work by both the Centre and State Governments along with the international community is required to systematically rebuild the Sundarbans. The mangrove system that continues to take the pounding of incoming cyclones can only reciprocate if the existing anthropogenic threats are mitigated.
It is only recently that the people from this area have received some relief from NGOs and the State Government. During the lockdown, it has become extremely difficult to mobilize and coordinate concentrated relief work. The lockdown also means that the families without income have to wait until the country is opened up to go out and find other sources of income. Till then, the survivability of the people is at the hands of the State, NGOs, and even the citizens of the country who can contribute to various fundraisers which have been set to help the people affected.